Editor’s note: This story was written on Aug. 12 and some of the information in this story is no longer up to date. Since this story was filed, Calistoga lost seven players, mostly underclassmen, due to grade issues. As of Aug. 20, the Wildcats have a full roster around 14 or 15 players.

The first year under a new head coach in any sport can often be rife with challenges.

Players can be unsure of what to expect from a regime change and a new staff may need time to familiarize itself with the specific intricacies and nuances of the team it’s inheriting.

Such was the case last fall for the Calistoga High football program under head coach Jim Klaczak, who was hired to replace Mike Ervin after the completion of the 2017 season. In his first season at the helm, Klaczak – who brought with him decades of coaching experience, all the way up to the NCAA Division I college level – guided the Wildcats to a 6-4 overall record.

They went 2-3 in the North Central League III South to finish tied with Tomales for third place. But their season ended prematurely when they elected not to enter the inaugural North Coast Section eight-man playoffs due to a lack of numbers stemming from injuries and eligibility issues.

“Going 6-4 despite all the distractions, as they call them, and problems that we had, I was pleased with the progress we made as a team,” Klaczak said recently about his first year at Calistoga. “New system, new coach. Things can be thrown into turmoil, but I was pleased.”

Now, entering Year 2 of the Klaczak era, the Wildcats seem to have bought into what their coach is preaching and are looking to take another step forward. They seem poised to do so, as they return a number of key skilled position players who will help lead a large group of incoming underclassmen ready to prove themselves at the varsity level.

But aside from comfortability under Klaczak and returning talented veterans, one major aspect the Wildcats are most excited about coming into the 2019 season is an increased turnout of players.

Practice officially started Aug. 5 and Klaczak reported that they had 17 players in attendance. A year ago, the Wildcats were at full strength during the season with 15 players. Now they could have about 25 players, Klaczak estimates. Plenty could change in the weeks leading up to the season opener at Woodside Priory on Aug. 30, but Klaczak is confident they’ll have a larger team than they did last season.

A majority of the roster will be comprised of underclassmen – around 17, Klaczak said during the Napa Valley Register’s annual prep football media day on July 31, and about eight returners.

“We have numbers, we have some experience and we have three really skilled kids that were really big in our success last year that are back – Christian (Caldera), Jesus (Rojas-Mendoza) and Fernando (Rios),” he said.

Caldera, an incoming sophomore, had a stellar first season of high school football. As the starting quarterback, he was second on the team in rushing yards and was 31-of-52 passing with 12 touchdowns. He was just as impressive on defense as he led the team in interceptions, was second in tackles and had three pick-sixes en route to earning a spot on the All-NCL III Defensive Team.

He’ll be joined by NCL III All-Offense returner Rojas-Mendoza and an all-around standout in Rios to form a formidable trio of talent and experience that will lead the Wildcats as far as they can go.

They’re understandably excited about the upcoming season, especially with the success they had last year under a new head coach.

“I think it’ll be much better this year than last year, especially because we’ll have more heads coming in,” Rojas-Mendoza said. “So we’ll get more breaks and get people some rest a little bit. That’ll be a good thing.”

The Wildcats pointed to their smaller roster last season as a reason for many of their shortcomings. Injuries were more prevalent because players often had to play both offense and defense for the entirety of games throughout the entire season – not an uncommon trait for eight-man football, but one that still had an adverse effect on Calistoga last season.

The injuries piled up toward the latter half of the season, when the Wildcats struggled to stay competitive against some of the top teams in the league. They dropped three straight games, to Branson (36-16), Tomales (46-8) and Stuart Hall (forfeit), before regrouping to beat Roseland Collegiate Prep 56-0 to end their season on a high note.

Around the same time the injury bug bit, the ever-present issue of grades reared its ugly head and took a few more players from the Wildcats. It was a near-perfect storm that led Klaczak to ultimately make the decision to not apply for a playoff berth.

While that may have been a disappointing way to close out the season, Klaczak still considered it a success, mainly because of what they accomplished leading up to their untimely finish.

“It was interesting because I didn’t know what we had and they didn’t know me, so it took a little while to get involved,” he said. “What I told them at the beginning was those who remain will be champions. We made the big comeback against South Fork (first game of the season) and they started to believe, then we had that run where we won four straight before we got banged up near the end of the season because we were down on numbers.

“But I think at the end, the kids finally realized that we can be successful at what we’re doing.”

That was the biggest takeaway for Klaczak from his first year. He simply wanted to give his players the blueprint for success and have them complete the project. He specifically preached defense over offense, his coaching formula at all of his past stops, and the results showed early.

After their season-opening loss to South Fork, the Wildcats won five straight (one by forfeit) and held opponents to 11 points per game over that span. The stretch was highlighted by a gritty 19-12 win over Rincon Valley Christian where a last-second goal-line stand in the fourth quarter gave the Wildcats what Klaczak called a “signature win.”

“That was the key for everybody,” he said, “realizing that this will work if we buy into it.”

Heading into Year 2, it appears the Wildcats are buying in. The addition of so many new players is largely because of the team’s success last season, said several of the returning Wildcats.

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“Well, everybody was scared at first because we had this new coach and nobody knew who he was and nobody wanted to play,” Rios said. “But then everybody saw how good we did last season and everybody wanted to be part of that.”

That was part of the reason why Rueben Duenas, an incoming senior, decided to go out for football for the first time this season. Duenas said other responsibilities like school kept him from committing to the time-intensive sport, but he was convinced to come out after watching the team last season and talking to his friends who played.

“I know a lot of coaches and Coach K is really cool,” Duenas said. “I came in and felt welcome to the team.”

New recruits are more than welcome for the Wildcats, who are looking to replace five key seniors from last year’s team. Jasiel Flores, Ignacio Blancas, Daniel Parada, Gabriel Sullivan and Abad Cuenca were massive contributors on both sides of the ball and their production will certainly be missed.

But so far, the returning players are making up for those losses.

“The guys that learned and played last year really bought into it, so they’re really good and they’re at the point now where they’re helping the younger guys,” Klaczak said. “They’re telling them, ‘Hands on your knees, keep your feet straight,’ just those little reminders that you (as a coach) sometimes miss because you have so many kids and two or three coaches.

“So we spend a lot of time on fundamentals, and I think that’ll carry over because the kids coming back are pretty fundamentally sound and the younger kids will follow them and follow their lead.”

The Wildcats began their offseason work with a handful of spring practices back in June. Those few weeks of running drills and light scrimmages was simply a way to introduce younger players to the program and hopefully get them involved in summer workouts and conditioning, which is what the Wildcats have been doing for the past several months.

They also recently introduced a new member of the coaching staff. Joe Simmons, whose hiring was officially approved by the school board on Aug. 5, will man the sidelines alongside Klaczak. Simmons graduated from Novato High School in 2009 and played linebacker and some offensive line for the Hornets. He said he’s gone back to alma mater and helped out at some practices since graduating but this will be his first paid coaching gig.

“I thought I came from a small town in Novato but obviously this is a lot smaller,” Simmons said after the Wildcats’ first practice on Aug. 5. “But I know a tight community like this really comes together. … That’s what really attracted me to this job. We always drive through here to go to Clear Lake and it always seemed like a really nice community.”

This will also be Simmons’ first experience with eight-man football, but he said he had done some studying leading up to his first day. He also plans on soaking up as much knowledge as he can from Klaczak, who also coached eight-man for the first time last season.

“For the most part, it seems like you can still run the same type of defenses, except it’s a smaller field and they have a different philosophy than what you would have in 11-man football,” Simmons said. “But I’m really just here to learn. … It’s really just a great experience and a way for me to expand my knowledge of football.”

Klaczak is looking to learn more this season, too. After being involved with 11-man since his high school playing days in the early 1960s, Klaczak was thrown into the fire of eight-man last fall. He said he only really started to feel comfortable with the playstyle at the Rincon Valley Christian game six weeks into the season.

Now, with a year of experience under his belt, he’s looking forward to taking the next steps with a young, hungry and talented team.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m really confident about this season,” Rios said. “Just looking at the team from last year to this year, everybody is so much faster, everybody is so into it. Everybody just puts in the work, it’s unbelievable.”

The Wildcats currently have 10 games scheduled this fall.

The NCS season officially begins Aug. 23 but the Wildcats won’t open their season until the following week when they visit Woodside Priory-Portola Valley on Aug. 30. They’ll then play two more road games, at Upper Lake on Sept. 6 and at Pinewood-Los Altos Hills on Sept. 13, before hosting Point Arena on Sept. 20 in their first home game of the season.

They’ll then host Potter Valley (Sept. 27) and Laytonville (Oct. 4) before hitting the road again to face the reigning eight-man NCS champion Branson on Oct. 12.

While Branson took home the trophy last season, its offseason was mired in tragedy. Kwentyn Wiggins, the Bulls’ starting quarterback and a standout basketball player, was killed in early June in a car crash.

Klaczak said the Wildcats plan on honoring Wiggins, who scored four touchdowns against the Wildcats last season, when Calistoga makes the trip to Marin County.

The Wildcats will host Tomales on Oct. 18, setting up a matchup with Stuart Hall on Oct. 26 in a game that will be played at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park.

“That is going to be really great,” said Klaczak. “It’s so unique a place and San Francisco is so great, it’s going to be a great game, and if it goes according to our plan, that could be for the league title. So we’re looking forward to it.”

The Wildcats will round out the regular season hosting Roseland Collegiate Prep on Nov. 1.

“We’ve got to take care of business as we go along,” the coach said. “But with the attitude that the kids are coming back with, we had a good summer and they realized that we can play with anybody.”

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Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.